- Historic Sites
“…to Serve The World-not To Dominate It”
United States policy, Henry Wallace said in his spirited challenge to Truman and Dewey in 1948, should be
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
He was aloof, morally austere, uncomfortable in smoke-filled rooms. His shyness, probably intensified by his rigid Calvinist upbringing, made him uncomfortable with small talk and disapproving of liquor and dirty jokes. “He liked the common man in mass, but couldn’t relate on a one-toone basis,” recalled another associate. In fact, many of his closest aides in the Progressive Party leadership were disturbed that after a year of collaboration, often living and eating with them on the road for weeks, Wallace still had not asked them to call him Henry.
Similarly, Truman noted caustically: “Why, hell, he’d been there presiding over the Senate for almost four years, and I’ll bet there weren’t half a dozen Senators who’d call him by his first name.”
There were similar contradictions in Wallace’s visionary economic programs that made him the boogieman of reactionary industrialists, and yet turned out to be surprisingly realistic. Although Wallace was treated by the anti-New Deal press as a crackpot, his doctrines of national economic planning and welfare-state financing became the core of dozens of government programs. His 1945 book, Sixty Million Jobs , advocating government social services and budgetary controls for full employment, was damned as “woolly-minded.” But the country achieved sixty million jobs in the short span of six years.
Even in his nonpolitical life, his experiments in hybrid corn—also thought to be visionary—turned out to be thoroughly realistic. The Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company, which he founded in 1926, paid off munificently. In fact, the stock he held in the company at the time of his death had a value of about $125 million at late 1974 market prices.
Paradoxically, Wallace was extremely tight about money. His Progressive Party associates recall that he almost never paid a taxi fare himself, always divided up a dinner check so that his share was figured down to the penny, and at a private fund-raising event that produced thousands of dollars borrowed a dollar to put in the plate.
The attacks on Wallace’s “woollymindedness” reached their peak in 1948 when Westbrook Pegler, a vitriolic conservative columnist, published the so-called guru letters. Born a Presbyterian and converted to Episcopalianism, Wallace was a lifelong student of Buddhism, Mohammedanism, various Oriental cults, mysticism, and numerology. Through his studies he met Nicholas Roerich, a Russian-born painter and mystic whose followers supposedly considered him a god.
A batch of letters from Wallace to Roerich, addressed “Dear Guru,” contained a jumble of harmless mystical allusions. At a press conference Pegler demanded that Wallace affirm or deny their authenticity and explain their meaning. Wallace handled his answers clumsily, losing himself in a maze of words and finally cutting off the discussion. (“His rule is never to use one word where ten will do the job,” the critic Dwight MacDonald commented. Besides, Wallace hated press conferences.) As a result he emerged for millions of readers in a vindictive press as a bumbling eccentric whose occult gropings could damage his mastery of national politics.
Like other paradoxes in Wallace’s personality, this mystical bent contrasted sharply with his earthy concentration on athletics. A robust, shambling man with unruly gray hair and shaggy eyebrows, whose slightly stooped shoulders made him seem shorter than his 5 feet 11 inches, Wallace exuded enormous energy. “An amazing gathering of the genes,” a prominent geneticist described him. After an exhausting day he liked to impress associates by performing twenty-five push-ups. He played relentless tennis—his form was poor, but he always seemed to get the ball back- as well as squash and Volleyball. He became an expert boomerang thrower, to the delight of press photographers, and at the age of fifty-six learned to fly his own plane. Wallace’s mania for physical fitness, in fact, strongly paralleled that of his boyhood idol, President Theodore Roosevelt, whose insurgent Progressive Party in 1912 was backed by Wallace’s father and whose party name Wallace borrowed in 1948.
Wallace, the first of six children, was born on an Iowa farm into a distinguished agricultural family on October 7, 1888. He would always look like a farmer—he could never fit a suit properly, a friend noted. Even during the 1948 campaign he couldn’t wait to get back to his farm in South Salem, New York. There were always flecks of dirt under the nails of his stubby fingers.
His grandfather, known as Uncle Henry, was the first of nine children, a Presbyterian minister and Civil War chaplain who gave up his pulpit in western Pennsylvania because of illness to become a prosperous Iowa farmer. A huge, bearded man, Uncle Henry looked like an Old Testament prophet. He preached religion and scientific farming through his popular column, “Sabbath School Lesson,” in the family newspaper.
Wallace’s father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, held a professorship at Iowa State Agricultural College and founded Wallace’s Farmer , the most influential farm journal in the Midwest. He used the paper to rally farmers behind Teddy Roosevelt, fight the railroads and monopolies, and advance himself to become Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.